FREEDOM IS A GIFT, LIKE SPRINGTIME
He had returned, just as he promised two years ago. Who could forget that day he had departed Shtetle Grinz? Isaac Abromowitz, the first to make the exodus from our village to what our rebbe called yennavelt. The procession of friends and villagers - almost a third of the small village - had walked with Isaac on the dusty road to the train station. It was almost like the walk to the graveyard. Amerika? He was going to Amerika - a land of Goyim?
When would we see him again? Never. Bad enough to be a Jew in Russia. The Czar could starve you to death, but at least there were Jews to say kaddish. The minute he stepped on the train he was as dead to us as Isaiah, who endlessly preached the covenant - the ketuba between Jew and G-d - that would bless us with a land of milk and honey. Not such a bargain as we saw it. Here we were in Grinz. 2000 years after Sinai and still we're paying for our Israelite ancestors' riotous night with that golden calf. I thought HE promised punishment only to the second and third generation.
Isaac Abromowitz, like the spies of Canaan, had returned to Grinz with evidence of Amerika's prosperity. They brought fat grapes, sweet as honeycomb, proofs of the land's fertility. He arrived in Grinz wrapped in luxury. Even had he been naked and hungry, his presence would have shouted of success because the steamship fare alone was 100 rubles. Then there was the train from Odessa to Grinz; another 10 silver coins. And even the wagon ride from the train station, so he wouldn't muddy his shoes or the cuffs of his pants, cost him two more rubles.
All that afternoon and into the early night our American friend told us of the New Jerusalem. We ate and drank well. We had saved up for his homecoming. There was even honey cake covered with plums for dessert as he told tales of a shining New World. And there on the table where we sat was a jug of vodka. We listened as closely to our spy from Amerika as we listened to the Rebbe's High Holidays sermon - always his best. Many of those whom we had invited to our reunion crowded along the wall and leaned forward. Eyes and ears focused on Isaac like the Israelites focused on Ezra when he read Torah, as it says in the Book of Chronicles. The Rebbe, too. He took his place of honor in a large chair with a cushioned seat next to Isaac.
This boy who had left two years ago was now a man. We were children of the old world. He was now a man of the New World. Our eyes had never witnessed the wonders that he spoke of. The trolley cars that ran on rails in the street. Beds, not straw, for all. The water that came out of a pipe IN the house. Hotels with dining halls offering all manner of foods. Streets made of stone, not mud. Machines that plowed and sowed and reaped the earth outside the cities that provided the abundance of foods for all.
Isaac talked on and on as we encouraged him with more vodka. It turns out he had arrived in Amerika the first week of July. And not two days after he set foot on the shore of his new country they had celebrated what they called Independence Day. Isaac explained it to us; a day of celebrating the anniversary of their freedom charter, which they called the Declaration of Independence. Basically, they had revolted against their English rulers and this declaration was their testament.
Back in July of 1776, the leaders of the rebellion had signed this document, according to Isaac, who by the way, had come back not to renew his friendship with the local Cossacks, but to fetch his mother - another 40 rubles, another train fare to Grinz! Maybe the stories were true. And he smoked cigarettes. And who could fail to notice the golden chain and watch on his vest that shined like a lighthouse.
Most people owned a watch in Amerika, said Isaac. And it was due to this Declaration of Independence and a longer document called a Constitution. He had studied it in order to become an American citizen. It was like the Chumash, said Isaac as we crowded around him to hear his low words. "Freedom comes from God - did he not lead us out of Egypt. It is a gift from heaven, like Springtime, not from our earthly rulers." A "right" he called it - not different from the right to eat and breathe and bear children and what to name them and how to raise them.
The rebbe rolled his eyes heavenward as though he understood, but hoped no one in a blue uniform listened at the door.
It was all in the Declaration of Independence, as Isaac of Grinz had called it. It couldn't be true. The watch, the suit, the money - undeniable. But the rest, those "rights", even the rebbe doubted.